Sundin column: Where will the money come from?
As I See It
With the steadily growing National Debt of the United States now exceeding $22 trillion, which amounts to about $67,000 for every man, woman and child in our current population of 330 million, how are we going to be able to pay for all of the needs of the future?
We are not alone. Many other countries in the world are also deeply in debt, a few of them are shown in the accompanying table.
The debt per capita column shows that leading democratic nations (who have adhered to the Keynesian economic philosophy of the depression era — lower taxes, higher government spending and low interest rates) have run up massive debts from spending more for social needs than the taxes people are willing to pay to fund them.
Communist dictatorships, on the other hand, can tax their people as much as it takes to fund whatever limited social benefits the dictator doles out to the people. The Scandinavian democratic socialist countries (which conservatives decry) are somewhere in between.
The Percent of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) column is a measure of each country’s ability to avoid defaulting on its debt obligations. Anything over 100 is reason for concern. If the currently low interest rates go up, it will further increase the deficits that are adding to national debts. Each one percent increase in interest rates on the U.S national debt will increase the debt $200 billion per year ($636 per person). How will we ever pay off this enormous indebtedness?
In the U.S. a majority of people are living paycheck to paycheck, many of them mortgaged to the hilt, struggling to make car payments and carrying high credit card debts. In addition, they are confronted with the escalating costs of health care.
In addition, we have accumulated a monstrous backlog of unmet infrastructure needs. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has identified the need of $420 billion for 18,600 miles of highway repairs, $123 billion for nearly 500 deficient bridges, and nearly $12 billion for public water supply and wastewater treatment needs. ASCE estimates that our deteriorating highways are costing the public $160 billion every year for auto repairs and wasted fuel and lost time due to congestion.
In the 36 years following 1956 the U.S. dedicated $425 billion to build the Interstate System. Since then we have been unwilling to commit the funds needed for maintenance, until now 40 percent of it needs repairs.
We are facing an even greater problem from the aging of our millions of miles of water mains and sanitary sewers. Many are over 200 and 100 years old respectively, and are approaching the end of their useful lives, and many of them are now under paved streets and buried gas, telephone, electric and fiber optic cables, making their repair and replacement extremely expensive.
Even more worrisome is the looming impact of global warming. Increasing temperatures and the resulting increase and severity of droughts, wildfires and wind damage and flooding from hurricanes are already costing us trillions of dollars in repair and replacement costs.
Sea levels appear likely to rise to a level that will force abandonment of coastal cities and flood hundreds of thousands of square miles of land, posing a dire threat to the survival of our civilization.
Concern about the cost of reducing the amount of greenhouse gases discharged into the atmosphere in the face of the disastrous cost of global warming, is like swatting at mosquitoes while being charged by an elephant.
Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. “As I See It” appears monthly in the Post Independent and at postindependent.com. Contact him at email@example.com.